We lost a “conscience keeper” of our nation: Former Chief Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman

We lost a “conscience keeper” of our nation:  Former Chief Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman

If Justice Habibur Rahman were alive today, he would have been annoyed with the title of the article because he preferred simply the name of “Muhammad Habibur Rahman” without the title “Justice”.

One day he complained to me that he sent an article to a newspaper and was upset when it carried the article, the newspaper added “Justice” before his name. He asked me “why can’t they take seriously the name of the writer without any appellations before or after the name?”abibur Rahman Ha

The sudden demise of Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman has been a great loss for the nation. He was regarded as “conscience-keeper” of the nation. He was a prolific writer, a distinguished historian, a talented Chief Justice and an able administrator- all rolled into one. Whatever position he held, he distinguished himself.

He became Chief Justice in 1995 and Chief Adviser of the 1996 Care-Taker government. During the time the caretaker government he skillfully dealt with a delicate situation relating the attempt of the coup by the army chief when the President dismissed him.

He was born on 3rd December born in 1928 in the village of Jangipur of the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. His father was a lawyer. He joined the Presidency College in 1947 and passed the Intermediate examination and in 1949, he took te BA degree in History securing First class First from the Rajshahi University. He took his Masters degree in History securing first class first from Dhaka University in 1951.

I first met Habibur Rahman in the early 50s and we knew him as Shelley Bhai. He was a tall and thinly built person with sharp face and no one can miss him. He was VP in the Salimullah Muslim Hall and he was honest enough to say that as a VP, he could not pass the budget. This demonstrates his modesty, honesty and integrity. He was senior to us by a few years in the University.

He was a “Bhasa Shainik” and on 21st February 1952 it was he who was the first with another student was courageous enough to break the Section 144. He went to prison for his active involvement of the Language Movement.

In early 50s, although he secured first class first in both BA and MA in history, he fell into trouble getting employment because of DIB report. He introduced an innovative way of protest for not securing a job by selling cigarettes at the main gate of the then Dhaka University (now Dhaka Medical College Hospital). When we asked, he used to say that “I have to work for a living”.

The government was embarrassed and he was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship for higher studies in England. He went to Worcester College of Oxford University and obtained a degree in modern history in 1958 and earned the professional degree of Barrister-at-Law from the Lincoln’s Inn, London.

At Lincoln’s Inn, I met again Shelley Bhai in 1958 where I was also studying at the same time. When ever I met him, he used to inform me about the lectures and seminars which I should attend.

We returned Dhaka from England. He joined the Rajshahi University as History teacher for a few years and returned to the High Court Bar in 1964. We sat on the same table at the High Court Bar and I became close to him.

He wrote a small book on Section 32A which was at that time was used by the District Commissioners to requisition private lands for “public interest”. The requisition law was complex and many cases were pending at the High Court. The book was immensely helpful to lawyers and his analytical views on the ramifications of the law reflected his depth and dimension of legal knowledge.

I left the Bar for the Pakistan Foreign Office in mid-60s and he continued law practice at the High Court. He became a Justice of the High Court Division in1976. Once or twice I met him in Islamabad.

Although he was 85, he continued to engage himself in writings and delivering speeches in various seminars until his last day. His thinking was very clear and spot on. He did not mince matters and what he felt and believed he said unhesitatingly. His remarks were simple on matters which we often ignore. He always alerted the audience that what people generally believed in might not be correct and he opened another dimension to the issue.

He had great confidence for the younger generation and urged tem to study with critical thinking. At the last Convocation address at the Independent University, he underscored the need of quality of education for the younger generation and requested the private university to spend adequate funds for research.

His love for Tagore led him to write many thought-provoking books on the great poet. At the same in one or two writings, he criticized Tagore on social issues. He was deeply religious and translated in Bengali the verses of the Holy Quran. Yet he was strongly against communalism and believed in secular Bangladesh.

After our retirement, we became very close. He was modest enough to come to my house and gave me a few books for review which I did and he was very happy but he said to me that he did not deserve the accolade which I recorded in my reviews.

He used to telephone me quite often and asked information which I readily provided. Only a fortnight ago, he came to my house and told that he wanted to publish a book all his speeches at the various places and he asked me to suggest the title of the book. I told him “ My Thoughts or Observations”. He smiled and said that he wanted a modest title and not high-sounding ones. I was taken aback because of his humility. Then we agreed the title “ An Open-Ended Notes” That provided me enough signal that he was a very humble person, although he held many highest positions in the country.

His name “Habib” means friend and he was a sincere fiend. One day he reached me to my house and when I left he car, he remained there to see me go inside safely and then his car left. He was the most caring person I ever found.

He was a remarkable person, modest, humble and at the same time firm in his beliefs and convictions. He was so candid in his public speeches that political leaders felt unease about his views on political and social issues. In one of his writings, he considered our hardworking farmers as “ideal persons” whom we should follow for proper direction of the nation.

Justice Rahaman published about 90 books. He wrote a book-“Twenty –First February Speaks for All Languages” published by Banga Academy in 2011 which I reviewed. It is a unique book containing more than 150 poems chosen from 70 languages and penned by 140 poets of different languages-from Spanish to Chinese, from Swahili to Japanese, from Hungarian to Russian, from Azeri to Castelliano-Spanish, besides various languages of South Asia.

Another bookMahachiner Katha” (Tales/History of Great China) by Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman was published by Bangla Academy in June 2013 and I had the privilege to review the book. The book is vastly different from other books on China because Justice Rahman has included besides history China’s religion, language, art, and ancient strategic war weapons. Most importantly the writer has narrated about women’s life including their traditions, dances, their clothes, ornaments, fashions and cosmetic products.

He received Ekushey Padak in 2007 and in 1984 Bangla Academy Literary award for his literary works on diverse subjects—from religion to Constitution to Tagore and Nazrul and to literary essays on thoughtful and rare assorted subjects.

He left this mortal world but left such a rich legacy for which he will be remembered always. His thoughts and ideas will inspire us and younger generation for years to come and he will live among us forever. To praraphrase what was said after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Justice Habibur Rahman possessed “the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.” He had in him all the attributes of greatness.

He left his wife and three daughters to mourn him. May Allah give them courage to bear this irreparable loss for them. May his great soul rest in peace.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN,Geneva

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